Convention speech: Andrew Bradley — Evangelicals’ ‘religious freedom’ is neither

Andrew Bradley speaks at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech made by Andrew Bradley at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He, along with Deven Green, created the comedy act of Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, which is an award-winning satirical web series. The duo performed an act for the convention crowd, but then Bradley took the stage solo to give this speech. 

By Andrew Bradley

America is lucky it was founded during the Enlightenment. Or, rather, it was lucky that it was the Enlightenment that pushed it to be founded. The Enlightenment meant that the United States was formed during a time of healthy skepticism for religions.

If you read the correspondence of most of the Founding Fathers, it would be almost impossible for any of them to be elected now, even as a Democrat.

They would be destroyed in the primaries by the super PACS: “Why does Ben Franklin hate Jesus so much? Why did Thomas Jefferson desecrate the Lord’s word by calling it a steaming pile of feces?” The Establishment Clause reflects this lull between fits of religious radicalism in this country.

Can you imagine the Bill of Rights written by the Puritans? It would probably look a lot like one that would be written by today’s evangelicals. And would probably have come to be known as the Bill of Wrongs. And only apply to other people.

Evangelicals don’t like — because of our pesky Constitution — that the United States isn’t the Official Sponsor of Christianity. And they’re tirelessly showing their resentment right now.

American theocracy has a new gimmick it’s using to try to work around the Constitution, and to shoehorn a right-wing brand of Christianity into the secular square. It’s called “religious freedom.” Forgive yourself right now if you think religious freedom is about being either religious or free. It is not.

As is the case with most political branding, the words were chosen for their ability to disarm rather than inform. “Religious freedom” is code. It’s anti-constitutional theocracy in constitutional drag. Who could possibly object to freedom? But a peek beneath its benign surface reveals “religious freedom” is really about one thing: Evangelicals using our government to promote their faith. But just an unapologetically selfish and vindictive version of their purported faith.

This very objective was regarded as so inimical to our secular republic that both the Founders and citizens thwarted it twice in the Constitution.

Once, in the body of the Constitution, Article 6, Section 3, banning religious tests for holding office. And then once again, for good measure, in the First Amendment, barring government from promoting any religion. The Founders haven’t been alone at recoiling from theocracy.

“Religious freedom” is not about indulging, much less protecting, non-Christians. It’s not even about protecting Christians who are not right-wing evangelicals. That’s because “religious freedom” is rooted in a lie. Its blandly inclusive title, pretending to protect people of all faiths, is descriptive only of its marketing, not implementation.

If you doubt this, listen to one of “religious freedom’s” highest profile proponents, the anti-LGBTQ president of Family Research Council, the odious Tony Perkins, a man who has selflessly devoted his life to thinking about men licking each other.

[Video of Perkins plays:] “The key to the Muslim community remains Jesus Christ. And that means that we, as Americans, understand the unique nature of this country, its heritage and its government is founded upon Christian truth. And that’s how it works. And the ideas of democracy and individual liberty and self-government are incompatible with what we see in the Muslim world.”

Now, that doesn’t sound like a guy who’s serious about protecting everyone else’s freedom to practice their religion.

In fact, Perkins has also said the Constitution does not protect Islam. And, according to him, “religious freedom” is even more stingy, as it only protects “orthodox” versions of Christianity. You know, the type that, quite coincidentally, hates the gays just as much as Perkins does.

It’s an ungrateful line in the sand. One of the Family Research Council’s favorite tropes to support its made-up version of “religious freedom” is to cite the statutory version called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The RFRA, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as unconstitutional when applied to states, was enacted in large measure to protect the religious freedom of Native Americans. The very people — pagans — the new “religious freedom” excludes.

Even beyond its objective, to have secular courts promote one faith, there are other, fundamental problems with how “religious freedom” attempts to nullify laws that apply to all Americans.

If evangelicals can void a law, ad hoc, by claiming it violates their “deeply held faith,” how do courts define that faith, much less determine whether it is deeply held?

And courts can’t just take someone’s word for it. That would be tantamount to the anarchy of giving everyone a wallet full of “Get Out of Laws Free” cards. Hardly in keeping with evangelicals’ oft-spoken fondness for “law and order.”

Let’s address the first question: What is the “faith” being used to avoid the law of the land?

It may not be the one you think. The Christianity that evangelicals practice is as abrupt a departure from Christianity as Christianity was from Judaism. It is so far removed from the teachings of Jesus, it begs for a new name. Jerry Falwell Jr. makes me think of a few . . . But Christianity 2.0™ is the most polite.

Jesus was beta-tested for centuries and, clearly, found buggy. Too many empathy commands, too few tax cuts for Herod. Too much rendering unto Caesar. And give what to the poor? Er, no. That’s not happening.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, conservatives have made their lifework not letting it go to Jesus’s head. Because, to conservatives, Jesus’s “help the poor” and “turn the other cheek” elective suggestions sound alarmingly liberal, even suspiciously un-American.

Worse, Jesus neglected to mention evangelicals’ two biggest obsessions: homosexuality and abortion. Something had to go. (Spoiler: It was Jesus.)

This has made “religious freedom” all about making up for Jesus’s carelessness. His inconveniently liberal agenda has been swapped out for evangelicals’ less-Jesusy approach.

If Jesus never had a problem with homosexuals, but you do, saying your voluntary animus is actually compulsory faith is a shrewd way to curry legal deference that would otherwise be curtly withheld. Because it’s not prejudice if you call it religion.

It’s God ignoring civil rights, not you. It’s God being an asshole for no reason, not you. “It’s nothing personal: God told me to hate you.”

Now, let’s address the second problem with this wildly improvised faith: How can it be claimed, much less proven, to be “deeply held”?

If there is one thing that the ascension of Donald Trump has taught us, it is this: The tea party never really cared about deficits. And evangelicals never really cared about “values.”

When it comes to determining what people really believe, actual actions speak louder than pious proclamations. Hardly any evangelical “deeply holds” the faith of traditional Christianity when it comes to what they do. So how can they be allowed to only hold it deeply when it comes time to use it against someone else?

Using “deeply held” religious beliefs as carte blanche to step on the constitutional toes of others is a dangerous precedent.

Do we provide exemptions from hate crime laws to Nazis, the KKK or other toxic flavors of white supremacy? Their “deeply held beliefs” about minorities, slavery and mixed marriages have, after all, been supported, with much success, in the past by the bible.

Whenever Franklin Graham tweets that the bible is a “book of timeless moral truths,” I always turn to Exodus 21:20 for tips on beating humans I own. The helpful Lord tells me I can beat them within an inch of their lives and I can’t be punished if they survive since they are my “property.” Ah, what a timeless moral truth. Glory!

I raise the Lord’s fondness for beating slaves to underscore how dangerous it is to allow rules in the bible to override secular laws about how we treat each other. Our secular laws change as humans become more knowledgeable, more caring. The bible is frozen in a time long before either science or the Enlightenment.

When you peel back the pleasant appearance of the words “religious freedom,” you see that something as fraudulent as it is unworkable is afoot. It was something the Founders tried to protect us from — an American theocracy.

Family Research Council and its ilk, after decades of butting heads against the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution, have come up with a Trojan horse. They call it “religious freedom.”

They know that if you can’t stop inconvenient civil rights laws, creating an excuse to ignore them is the next best thing.

Cases are popping up around the country where businesses otherwise open to the public exercise their “religious freedom” to demean and refuse service to LGBTQ and other minorities.

But “religious freedom” is never about wedding desserts. It’s about just deserts: retribution against secularism.

It’s about promoting one brand of religion by making life difficult for those who do not promote it. It’s about people preening in the piety of making others comply with a “religion” they don’t even follow. It’s about upending America’s hierarchical relationship between settled law and ad hoc belief. It’s about providing right-wing evangelicals with a pretty costume to cover for their grimy bigotry.

Because “religious freedom” treats something that is just a choice (religion) as more important than immutable characteristics that are not choices (race and sexuality).

When you really look at it, you realize that “religious freedom” is neither.